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A memoir: knock’em down

Djon Mundine, Vicki Van Hout, Long Grass

Djon Mundine OAM, of the Bandjalung people, NSW, is an artist, writer, educator and independent curator. He most recently curated Bungaree: the First Australian, Mosman Art Gallery, Sydney, 13 Dec 2014-22 Feb 2015.

Long Grass, photo Heidrun Löhr Long Grass, photo Heidrun Löhr
When I was a little boy on the north coast of NSW my brothers and sisters would crawl into the long grass to bend, arrange and ‘weave’ the stalks to make fragile cubby houses there to play in. Other native creatures also did this, and hid there all the time of course. Often there were more than a few deadly snakes but, blind to the danger, we never seemed to encounter them. In the Darwin tropical north bandicoots and native rats build their nests in the grass and live off the stalks, seeds and thriving resident insect-life. Snakes of all kinds in large numbers come to pick them in turn.

In the country town where my family lived in post WWII rural Australia, there were homeless Aboriginal people, a resident population, who lived in vacant unkempt grassed blocks (they never seemed to be able or want to ‘squat’ in the numerous derelict houses). They seemed to drink and party a lot—the ‘goomies’ as they were called. Their presence reminded us of a lifestyle we were possibly one step away from.

Colonial Australia, it seems, has always had a ‘pest’ problem. There has always been the ‘Aboriginal problem’—authorities used to ‘disperse’ Aboriginals once upon a time. As I’m writing this, a ‘rabbit cull’ is taking place in the dark outside my ranger’s cottage. I can hear the short quiet ‘snap’ of what sounds like 0.22 ‘silencer’ bullets all around me. Darwin has always had a multicultural homeless population—Xavier Herbert’s novel Capricornia begins there, but authorities have periodically attempted to eradicate what they saw as freeloading pests—physically shipping people on boats back to what is now Maningrida just after WWII, and kicking out the hippies on their way to London in the 1970s, and Aboriginal people through laws to do with public drinking in the 1980s. There was a touch of jealousy for this loose life free from the nine to five workload, so different yet right in your face. What would happen if everyone lived like this?

I came to work in Milingimbi in 1979 and spent scattered time in Darwin as a transit place when passing through to southern cities. In the 1980s when I began to collect autobiographies from local artists at Milingimbi and Ramingining, early in the tales would be episodes of Darwin sojourns. An historian told me that within two years of Darwin being established Aboriginal people came to live there on the fringe. Most of the senior men had, in their teens, walked the 500km westward, cross-country to Darwin looking for ‘the action,’ for adventure. Darwin was a freer place then. They sometimes lived in prescribed areas like Bagot Reserve but as often camped with relatives on beaches and in the many convenient ‘long grass’ spaces in the centre of the city. Particular community groups had their own site-specific ‘grass’ sites; Parap, near the Oval, Rapid Creek, Fanny Bay, East Point, and with the hippies on the Esplanade or Casuarina Beaches.

Most expatriate workers I knew experienced their own, often darker, Darwin story: someone they became close to, who went to Darwin to live in the ‘long grass’ only to be lost and die there. A friend pointed out how walking into the sunset metaphorically was walking toward death. In the Arnhem Land society of arranged marriages and another consciousness, there are countless runaway brides and refugees from family disputes, convenient victims of accusations of sorcery. Many people come to the ‘long grass’ accidentally—they may have come to Darwin to go to hospital, to attend an education course or a political or church meeting and ‘fell in with friends.’ People also talked of ‘having a holiday’ after a big win at cards, or the final payout of a work contract.

It is timely to examine these lives; in other societies they appear romantically and seriously in literature, film and folklore. Outside of Herbert’s Capricornia in 1939 and Stephen Johnson’s 2000 feature film Yolngu Boy it’s a subject rarely explored. The experience of Vicki Van Hout’s Long Grass reminded me of surreal scenes in Fellini’s 1969 film Satyricon, but less high camp, and also the beauty of the players and positive energy of the music and dance portrayed in Marcel Camus’ 1959 Black Orpheus, another tale of refugees on the fringe.

I was told recently that all art could be described as form, content and context. Long Grass is an immersive, captivating work in form and style that charms, seduces and positively takes you into its arms. Its context, and some of its content, is the existential question posed by Camus and facing many Aboriginal youth today: to commit suicide or not commit suicide; after that everything is simple and structured.

There are many reasons for being depressed and committing suicide and many ways to do it; drinking yourself to death is a common one. I remember a particular man.

A totem is temporal—it exists in a physical site, in time and a season. There was a man from a small almost extinct clan group. We were close friends and at one stage talked about sharing a house due to the housing shortage. He belonged to a ‘line of clouds’ totem group that included anchovies and stingrays. His name meant a species of stingray. He was also a painter of small, fine pointed subject matter. I remember a year of ‘king’ tides when schools of small fish would come into the shallows and skip across the water. The tides spilled onto the land such that you could scoop the fish out of the gutters at the side of the coastal road. ‘Stingray’ had just finished a contract and before he holidayed in Darwin he took a painting with him to make extra money. We joked about the ‘mokuy’ dead spirit in his painting and how it was a self-fulfilling prophecy in the long grass lifestyle. Within several weeks he’d died there.

All through the wet season and just into the dry everything magically grows, seemingly overnight. The ‘long grass’ can be two or three metres high. I remember driving through walls for more than an hour with nothing in sight other than this straw curtain in front of me. In April comes the violent powerful ‘knock’em’ storms that flatten the grass and clear the line of sight. Watching Long Grass I thought of Vicki Van Hout as an amazing ball of energy like these storms that come out of nowhere to energize, create and be gone again before you can blink.

See Keith Gallasch's review of Vicki Van Hout's Long Grass in the Sydney Festival

Djon Mundine OAM, of the Bandjalung people, NSW, is an artist, writer, educator and independent curator. He most recently curated Bungaree: the First Australian, Mosman Art Gallery, Sydney, 13 Dec 2014-22 Feb 2015.

RealTime issue #125 Feb-March 2015 pg. 20

© Djon Mundine; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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